Note to readers: My dashboard indicates that this post was published last night at 10:00pm. If that's the case, I accidentally posted a draft I dashed off last night before bed. I did some significant editing this morning, so if you read this post on Saturday night or before 7 am CST, you only read a rough version of it.
Earlier this week, in another blog, someone made a disparaging comment about people who interpret fortunate encounters as contact with angels. You know the kind of story I'm talking about.
My car broke down at 3:00 am on a dark road over 30 miles from the nearest town. No one is ever on that road late at night because it's a service road that goes to the old mill that closed years ago. I was only there because I got lost. Well it was 10 degrees below zero and I thought I was going to freeze to death until a man came along and got my car started. He had hot cocoa and a blanket, too.
Somehow the teller of the story is convinced that this was an encounter with an angel.
In the urban legend version, the account would include absurd embellishments.
I turned to say goodbye, but he was gone, and there were no tire tracks or footprints in the snow.
I bring this up because I've been thinking more lately about the psychology of enchantment. By enchantment I mean the state of pleasure intrinsic to a sense of mystery and magic.
I should note that enchantment extends well beyond the realm of religious or spiritual experience, into states that are readily recognized as fantasy. Role-playing video games, movies, comic books, certain genres of fiction, daydreams and even some drugs can take us into the realm of enchantment.
Perhaps enchantment is best understood as a kludge, a somewhat clumsy work around for problems of the evolving human mind.
One possibility is that enchantment sustains hope and persistence in the face of seemingly terrible odds. Perhaps it's an emollient for existential anxiety over our foreknowledge of death, selected in the course of human evolution to counteract the depredations of despair over our inevitable demise.
If you've done some analytic reading, Bettelheim's take on fairy tales might also come to mind:
The dominant culture wishes to pretend, particularly where children are concerned, that the dark side of man does not exist, and professes a belief in an optimistic meliorism. Psychoanalysis itself is viewed as having the purpose of making life easy—but this is not what its founder intended. Psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving in to escapism. Freud’s prescription is that only by struggling courageously against what seem like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of his existence.
This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence—but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.
None of this is to deny the steep downside of magical thinking. Magical thinking is by definition at odds with realism. Enchanted states can be so compelling that they effectively become addictions leading to self-neglect and neglect of others. But acknowledging the downsides, we should then ask the question: why would a state lacking in realism persist as an appealing, pleasant mental state for a species? Shouldn't complete realism confer an advantage for survival over and above realism contaminated by magical thinking?
Perhaps the answer is that realism alone isn't itself motivation. It's a tool for survival, but other psychic forces must push us forward in the face of difficulties. Enchantment let's us sample something better than what ails us now, which is perhaps a reason to keep going. If nothing else, we can still sample the sense of hope that is embedded in the enchanted experience.